William the Whale

William is a humpback whale that was identified by Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team on January 2, 2010 off the coast of Maui. William was named by Kelly Burke as a special Father’s Day gift to honor her father, William Burke., through Pacific Whale Foundation’s Adopt a Whale Program. Kelly recalls that her dad brought the family to Hawaii each year ever since she could remember. Her dad, now age 82, simply loves Hawaii. Kelly is continuing the family tradition by bringing her daughter to Hawaii each year, specifically in February so they can watch whales from the lana’i (porch) of their condo on Maui.

Maui is a whalewatchers’s paradise and one of the world’s top spots for viewing humpback whales. The island of Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, with a land area of 729 square miles. Like all of the other Hawaiian Islands, Maui is volcanic in origin. Haleakala, a dormant volcano rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level, is a major geographic feature on Maui. Older than Haleakala is the extinct and eroded volcano known as Mauna Kahalawai or simply, Kahalawai, is also often called the West Maui Mountains. These massive mountains help to shield the south and west shores of Maui from the tradewinds that blow from the northeast.

Off Mau’s south and west shores is a relatively shallow area of ocean, bordered by the nearby islands of Molokai, Lana’i and Kaho’olawe. In some areas, the ocean here is only about 100 feet deep. This shallow water region, sheltered from the strong trade winds by the towering presence of Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains, offers a uniquely protected area in the midst of the vast deep ocean. It is in this four-island region that the majority of Hawaii’s humpback whales are found in the winter months.

An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales come to Hawaii in winter to mate and give birth. William was among those whales in 2010. When William was sighted off the coast of Maui on January 2, it was about four miles offshore from  a popular surf spot known as “Grandma’s” at Papalaua Park. (The idea behind the name is that the waves are so easy that a grandma could ride them.)

William was seen swimming with four other whales. The whales were up at the surface three times, then down beneath the water for 8 to 10 minutes at a time.

Humpback whales do not form stable long-term groups or pods in Hawai’i. Their pods are always changing, with animals moving from group to group. The groups are usually small; nearly 90 percent of the humpback whale pods observed in Hawai’i are comprised of one, two or three whales. The remaining groups typically range from four to eight whales. Some researchers have reported seeing pods of sixty humpback whales at a time!

Humpback whales swim by moving their flukes up and down, rather than from side to side like a fish. The muscle that moves their flukes up and down is the most powerful muscle in the animal kingdom. They are not fast swimmers. During migration they average three to eight miles per hour. Humpback whales can swim faster than 8 miles per hour for short bursts.

William, and all humpback whales, do not have gills. They are air breathers and must come to the surface to breathe. When inhaling, a whale fills its lungs to capacity. These lungs are about the length of a Cadillac stretch limousine. When exhaling, they expel all of the air in their lungs in just a half second. The air rushes out of their blowholes at over two hundred miles per hour, vaporizing any sea water around the blowholes into a fine plume of mist known as a “blow.”

The time between breaths, when a whale is beneath the water, is known as its “downtime.” Typical downtimes are 7 to 15 minutes. Whales that are swimming or engaged in high energy activities tend to have shorter downtimes. William and the whales that were part of the group we observed had downtimes of about 8 to 10 minutes.

Humpback whales are known for their amazingly long seasonal migrations, the longest known migrations in the animal kingdom. William is part of an overall population known as North Pacific humpback whales, and a specific breeding stock known as the Hawaiian breeding stock. The Hawaiian humpback whales feed in an area stretching from southern British Columbia along the coast of Alaska to the Bering Sea. While there, they devote their time to feeding on abundant schools of tiny fish. As autumn arrives, the whales migrate southward to the warmer waters of Hawaii, a migration of 3,000 miles. During the winter months, the whales are found in Hawaii, with the largest concentrations seen off the coast of Maui.

During their time in Hawaii, the whales focus on reproduction. Each winter the next generation of whales is conceived in the warm ocean surrounding our islands.

It’s for this reason that the United States Congress created the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary here in Hawaii, to protect this vital mating and calving area. Pacific Whale Foundation is a nonprofit that also works to protect whales here and throughout the Pacific. We thank you for adopting William and supporting Pacific Whale Foundation’s work to protect these majestic and fascinating marine mammals.

sightings map of william the whale